Historical Cultural Context
Serving Two Masters
The typical situation in which a servant had two masters was when a father bequeathed one slave to two sons in the inheritance. The slave's problem is how to divide service equally or equitably between the two.
“Love” and “hate” must be understood in their Mediterranean sense: not as emotions but as degrees of attachment. Our ancestors in the faith were not introspective and did not possess as sophisticated an awareness of internal states or emotions as modern Western believers do. They based themselves on external appearances and external considerations like attachment. Love means attachment, and hate means disattachment or alienation.
In addition, Middle Eastern society is strongly group oriented, so love (understood as attachment) links a person to a group. Jesus speaks of two masters, and we have explained that this means two sons. The culture would remind us that we are dealing with the entire families of two sons, that is, two groups. It is difficult to serve two groups in the Middle East.
The modern Arab proverb says: "I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousins; but I, my brother, and my cousins against the world." One need only recall Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau, among other brothers in the Bible to realize the difficulty a slave would experience trying to serve two masters, that is, two groups or families. This is the context for interpreting Jesus' application: "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Mt 6:24).
To achieve authentic righteousness, the disciple of Jesus must have a well-ordered and properly directed heart, one that is not divided.
Because they lived hand to mouth all the time, peasants could not afford the luxury of thinking ahead. They were totally absorbed in the challenge of living from moment to moment.
Jesus is not insensitive to the needs of peasants. Like all human beings, they were anxious about the basics of life: food, drink, and clothes (see Sir 29:21). Given the subsistence economy in which they lived, the unpredictability of nature, and the voracious taxes they were forced to pay, how could they think of anything but survival?
Jesus' advice is simple yet cleverly delivered. Without pointing his finger or naming names, he selects a masculine Aramaic noun (birds) and a feminine Aramaic noun (anemones, or lilies of the field) and urges men and women not to worry. With the birds, Jesus associates men's work (sowing, reaping, harvesting); with the lilies of the field, women's work (spinning yarn, making clothes). Even success in these efforts cannot extend life beyond the measure set by God. Hence, one must trust in God the heavenly patron who knows the clients' basic needs and will meet them.
To achieve authentic righteousness, such as would surpass that sought by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus urges his disciples to be certain that their mouth-ear and hands-feet zones are well aligned with their heart-eyes zone. All zones should be focused on God.
Modern Western believers will have to expend some effort to appreciate how our ancestors in the faith perceived human beings and human activity. Once the three-part symbolic understanding of the human body is grasped, it can easily be identified throughout the Bible from beginning to end. Our ancestors were deeply concerned with serving God single-mindedly. How would we describe American believers who focus single-mindedly on God?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University